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Traficant has a lot at stake



Published: Sun, February 3, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



YOUNGSTOWN -- U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. has a lot riding on the outcome of his trial.

If found guilty of all 10 counts he faces, Traficant, of Poland, D-17th, could face up to 63 years in prison and $2.2 million in fines. If he is convicted of the racketeering count, his properties could be subject to forfeiture including but not limited to the sum of $100,000.

But the loss of his federal pension is not a concern. Also, a federal conviction would not necessarily keep him from serving as a congressman in the future.

If Traficant were to be found guilty of any of the 10 felony counts facing him, he "should refrain" from voting in the U.S. House of Representatives until "judicial or executive proceedings reinstate the member's presumption of innocence or until he is re-elected to the House after his conviction," according to an April 16, 1975, House amendment to its Code of Official Conduct.

Traficant has been under indictment since May on charges involving his conduct in office, but the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee has opted to take no action against him. The special House committee oversees the conduct of House members.

The committee usually opts not to do so in these cases because "it feels it normally should not undertake duplicative investigations pending judicial resolution of such cases," House rules read.

The committee typically does not take action against an indicted congressman when there is an ongoing investigation, but House rules say it can do so if the "allegation is that one has abused his direct representational or legislative position -- or his 'official conduct' has been questioned."

But after a congressman is convicted of any of the charges facing Traficant, there is no longer a presumption of innocence even if there are outstanding appeals, according to House rules.

Opportunity to resign: If Traficant, a nine-term congressman, is found guilty of any or all of the 10 charges, he would be given the opportunity to resign from office.

There is no set time frame as to when Traficant would have to make his decision, but it would have to be a relatively quick decision, according to a federal official with intimate knowledge of congressional expulsion hearings, who requested anonymity.

If Traficant is convicted and refuses to resign, the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee would first conduct an investigation, using the trial transcript as its primary source of evidence, and make a recommendation to the full House, which could opt to punish him in a number of ways.

The penalties include expulsion, censure, reprimand, a fine, and/or denial or limitation of rights and privileges. The House would have to vote by a two-thirds majority to expel a congressman. Any other punishment would need only a simple majority.

Historically, all but four congressmen convicted of felonies resigned.

The last congressman expelled by the House for refusing to resign after a felony conviction was Michael J. Myers of Pennsylvania, convicted in the Abscam political corruption sting. Myers was convicted of bribery Aug. 30, 1980, and after refusing to resign, the committee recommended expulsion Sept. 24, 1980. The House approved the recommendation Oct. 2, 1980. The three other cases of congressmen's refusing to resign after felonies involved treason during the Civil War.

Special election: If the 17th Congressional District seat is vacated, it would be up to Gov. Bob Taft, with assistance from the Ohio secretary of state, to schedule a special election to fill it. There is no legal requirement as to when the governor calls the special primary and general elections.

Joseph Andrews, Taft's spokesman, declined to comment on the potential vacancy, saying it was a "hypothetical situation. We're not going to decide what to do now. The governor determines if and when a special election would be."

The governor does have the discretion to not hold a special election to fill out the remainder of Traficant's term, which expires Dec. 31.

"The governor has broad statutory authority to set a special primary and general election," said James Lee, a secretary of state spokesman. "Time plays a factor. The governor would take a number of things into consideration."

If a special election is held, the winner would serve only through the end of December. The current 17th District is being split among three districts for the congressional term that begins in 2003.

The last Ohio congressman to leave office in midterm was Willis D. Gradison Jr. of Cincinnati, who resigned in January 1993 to take a lobbying job. A special primary election took place in mid-March of that year and the general election took place about six weeks later.

In 1990, Donald E. Luken of Middletown resigned his congressional seat about a month before the general election to avoid a House investigation into charges of improper sexual advances toward a female federal employee. The governor ordered a special election for the same date as the scheduled general election in November of that year.

Future run not impossible: As for Traficant, even a felony conviction would not automatically preclude him from running for Congress in the future.

If Traficant is convicted, serves his time and, in the future, wins election, it would ultimately be up to Congress to decide whether he could serve, said Gretchen Quinn, the Ohio secretary of state's assistant elections counsel. Paul Sracic, a Youngstown State University political science professor, disagrees. Sracic said Congress would have to seat Traficant, but after that, they could move to have him expelled from office.

"A convicted felon could be a candidate for Congress, but whether they are seated is up to Congress," Quinn said. "Power is granted [in the U.S. Constitution] to Congress to be the final judge as to the qualifications and election of its members."

The point is moot if he gets a presidential pardon or has his rights restored by the judge overseeing his case, Quinn said.

Traficant would probably have a much tougher time if he were to win a congressional race while serving a federal sentence, she said.

"A congressman has to appear to present credentials and take an oath of office among other duties," she said. "There is a very strong argument that someone incarcerated is not able to complete the steps necessary to take office and then perform the duties of holding office."

But when it comes to Traficant, you cannot rule anything out, said John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.

"He defies conventional wisdom, but a conviction would be hard to overcome," he said. "Also, with the new congressional districts, he would be competing in areas where he had never served before so it would be harder for him to win there after a conviction. Those people would not be familiar with him, and the first thing they'd know about him is that he is a convicted felon."

If Traficant wins his federal case, it would enhance his folk-hero status and make it extremely difficult for anyone to defeat him, said Bill Binning, chairman of YSU's political science department.

Will keep pension: Regardless of the outcome of Traficant's trial, he cannot lose his government pension, according to Jim Forbes, spokesman for the U.S. House Administration Committee. The only way to lose a federal pension, Forbes said, is for a person to be convicted of committing an act of treason. No convicted congressman has ever lost his pension.

Traficant would get more than $40,000 annually for his basic federal pension, which begins May 8, 2003, when he turns 62. Traficant is already eligible to receive his state retirement pension, which is about $11,000 annually, for his 15 years of service with Mahoning County.




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